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Conflict or Combat?

Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional –Max Lucade


Conflict or Combat

The project team was hopelessly entangled.  They were passionate about their work and were fully engaged in achieving their goals but whenever they got together they would spend a lot of time arguing and dismissing each others’ points of view. They appeared to be suspicious of each others’ motives and unable to achieve even easy decisions. They had gone from being at a stage of manageable conflict to being on the verge of combat.

I was called in to work with this team. First I observed a couple of their meetings. Here is what I saw:

  • They didn’t let each other get a word in edgewise;
  • There was one person with a louder voice who overrode even the smallest disagreement;
  • There was an equally strong person who stood up to the first person but who was no more effective than the loud voiced person;
  • There were two or three people who essentially gave up and acted quite passively;
  • As their passions rose, the listening went way down;
  • As the listening went down, the commitment to solutions dissipated;

The next thing I did was to convene a meeting with the team to talk about how they conduct their business. I shared the top tips for making team discussion and disagreement work for them. Here they are:

  • Proceed on the assumption of goodwill – remind yourselves that you are good people trying to do a good job – make sure that you keep that in mind.
  • Surface assumptions about the issue at hand – the more contention there is, the more you need to get beneath it understand each others’ assumptions – call a “Stickie” – give each person a pad of stickies and have each person generate assumptions, one assumption per stickie. Set a time limit of 5 or 10 minutes and see how many assumptions can be generated in the time period. Then put them all up on the wall, and cluster them in themes. Discuss the themes and the contradictions. Your team will be very surprised to see all the different assumptions. Many times this technique leads to breaking up logjams or diffusing conflict.
  • Don’t interrupt each other – if necessary, suggest the use of the talking stick (see next point). Agree ahead of time that any one person on the team can ask for the talking stick and everyone will cooperate.
  • When you can’t get in a word edgewise, use a talking stick – the trick is to make sure that no one person hogs the airtime – pass around a stick or a ball or a baton or some object that you will recognize and make sure that everyone airs their opinions before any one person gets a second turn.
  • Ask questions in the spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of combat – when you truly ask for more information and delve into how another person thinks, you can often be surprised. And when you get more information, the team’s thinking and resources for decision-making are strengthened.
  • Give meeting effectiveness feedback at the end of the meeting – go around the table and have everyone say what they appreciated and what could go better next time.

This team worked very hard to get into healthy team habits.  The first meeting we had, we had nothing more on the agenda than talking about how they could improve how they worked together. I shared the healthy team tips with them and they created some ground rules for themselves. They agreed that any member of the team could make a call for Stickies or for the Talking Stick and if any one other team member agreed, they would use this technique.

The next meeting, they began with the use of the talking stick to get some order to their discussions. It was fun and kind of amusing to see the loud-voiced person biting their tongue. But with some offline coaching of this person, he was helped to see that the real benefit of not hogging the airtime was that now everyone actually listened to him and heard his point of view.

The next meeting they tackled the use of Stickies and found a really helpful technique. They diligently practiced these techniques over about three months and very rarely now do they slide back into combat.

What is your team like? Do they practice healthy team habits? How does your team resolve conflicts? What are you facing right now? We’d love to hear from you. Give us your comments below.

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